Cosplayers discuss black representation in pop culture media

Growing up as a mixed-race black child always made me feel like I was walking a line between a few worlds. To the world I was a black girl, to the boys in my class I was white based on the things I enjoyed, and during the summer I ate homemade tortillas with my Nana in the Arizona heat. So identity is something I’ve struggled with, a lot. It’s also why I’m in love with the way pop culture is.

I’ve always found it both interesting and sad that white-centric shows are almost always the universal standard, but shows with casts that are anything but “black shows,” “Asian shows,” “Mexican shows.” It makes me wonder not only why that is, but also how that affects other people because I already know its effect on me.

Images courtesy of Kendra Beltran (Cosplayers In Descriptions)

Image taken by _devantethomas

So I wanted to talk to cosplayers about this and see if they felt the same way I did, or if this was something that was keeping me up at night trying to figure it out. We agreed on a lot of things, but we also explored how these black and white lines in pop culture impacted her cosplay choices, if anything.

Selina Kyle (@cosplayxtwek) is two years away from starting down the cosplayer rabbit hole after doing her portrayal of Snow White, whom she dubbed “Snow Black”, she feels it’s the money invested behind white-centric shows that pushes them more to homes. “I feel like white-focused shows are considered universal because they have the budgets behind them for huge marketing campaigns, and in this country, euro-focused beauty standards are thrown in our faces basically from birth.”

Images courtesy of Kendra Beltran (Cosplayers In Descriptions)

Stalli (@stallicorn) echoed those sentiments saying, “This might just be speculation, but I think black-centric shows don’t get as much budget as white-centric shows, which would be problematic when trying to market the show. also to reach all audiences”.

Selina and Stalli are not wrong about that. Just think how much is put into ‘Friends’ versus ‘Living Single’ today, years after both shows aired. One has massive streaming deals, expensive meetups, and markets the… you know what, while the other was dumped on Hulu without so much as a glance.

Images courtesy of Kendra Beltran (Cosplayers In Descriptions)

It’s hard for new fans to stumble over each other when one is so out there and the other is treated like a hidden treasure, buried in the depths of a streaming service. Hollywood also loves to follow a dollar sign and if that sign points towards black shows, that’s where it will go, eventually.

As one sort of cosplay veteran, Bryant Collins (@DJLuffyStix), explained it, “On Netflix, they would show all the white-centric shows like ‘Full House,’ ‘Friends,’ etc.” and added: “Black people were asking, ‘Where are the black comedies?’ Once Netflix and other apps heard this, they started adding black comedies bit by bit.”

Images courtesy of Kendra Beltran (Cosplayers In Descriptions)

Image taken by Firebird Images

Anyone with social media over the last two years was hit with a barrage of hashtags related to the black shows that Netflix went ahead and eventually added to its streaming platform. It had been long overdue, but adding shows like ‘Moesha,’ ‘Girlfriends,’ and ‘The Parkers’ did wonders for the streaming platform’s wallet and credibility.

So now that all of these shows are available to stream on a variety of platforms for all to watch, one would hope that they could break down the barriers so that Black people weren’t the only ones getting the references that they say about these facets of the pop culture. This is something I have come across throughout my life. An example would be two shows already mentioned; ‘Friends’ and ‘Living Single’. Most of my friends know one, but very few of my white friends know the other. Our cosplayers have also come across this.

Images courtesy of Kendra Beltran (Cosplayers In Descriptions)

“When I say a line from a black TV show or have a product that black people use a lot, it sounds like I’m crazy. There was one time when I was cooking something for my black and non-black friends, and on my way to the table to bring some food, I dropped some and said the Steve Urkel catchphrase: I do that?’ One of my non-black friends looks at me and says ‘Yeah, you did that,’ and one of my black friends started laughing because he got the joke,” Bryant recalled.

As for Selina, she has a different approach: “I save my references for friends who will understand! When it comes to cosplay, most of the characters I do are very well known, but the world of nerds is so vast that I don’t criticize anyone for not having knowledge of a certain comic or movie. There is still so much I don’t know yet!”

Images courtesy of Kendra Beltran (Cosplayers In Descriptions)

Speaking of cosplay, most would agree that cosplayers want to make looks that are not only cool, but show off pop culture characters that turn heads, characters that are easily recognizable. That can be a problem for black-centric mainstays in pop culture from non-white audiences who don’t always gravitate toward those shows and movies, right? Does that in any way affect characters from black-centric forms of pop culture being chosen as points of interest for cosplayers?

Selina said that it has never been about hesitating, but about limiting oneself and that when you cosplay it is not about idolizing the race of the character, but the character itself. She also added, “Making white character costumes leads to racism, full stop.” On the other hand, Stalli said that she enjoys drawing attention to those characters: “It makes people want to know who they are, especially if it’s a well-crafted cosplay.”

Images courtesy of Kendra Beltran (Cosplayers In Descriptions)

A good observation because I know that I have been against it, I have seen certain cosplays and then I investigated what those characters were. So maybe if more people started cosplaying black-centric pop culture characters, we’d see a more level playing field. The same goes for movies and shows starring Asian, Mexican, Native American, Indian, and other non-predominantly white actors.

Of course, it is important to note that one must always be respectful because there is a line that can be crossed when portraying someone of another race. “Just don’t go blackface to become Miles Morales, and the same goes for Native Americans, Asians and other characters,” recalls Bryant.

Images courtesy of Kendra Beltran (Cosplayers In Descriptions)

Image taken by Ewide

Things in pop culture with white-leaning casts have often been considered the standard, or rather, more universal, while everything else is more specific. In talking to our cosplayers, we all agreed that it was because of the money that Hollywood tends to spend. When the flow is low, your show or movie will not be seen by everyone. If only a few people or a certain type of people are marketed, they will be the only ones getting the referrals.

Our cosplayers said that doesn’t affect their choices about whether or not to make characters in more black-focused entertainment, but they agreed that a lot of those references can get lost on the non-black people in their lives. In the end, if more people expanded their horizons and dressed up more as characters from black-centric entertainment, it would bring attention and later appreciation to those TV shows and movies. As long as the looks are respectful, everyone wins, and they look good in the process.